In her much loved dinner prep Instagram livestreams, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made it clear that she thinks marijuana prohibition is a “tool” used to oppress people of color in the United States. But other than the fact she’d legalize cannabis and advocate for the release of people who have been incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, she hasn’t released much info on her ideas around cannabis.
Those looking for clues to any potential strategy got another one this week, when Ocasio-Cortez announced that Dan Riffle, health care and tax reform expert, would be joining her staff as senior counsel and policy advisor.
That’s big news for those with an eye on weed issues because, in addition to holding past staff positions for other members of Congress, Riffle was once director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project. He left the organization back in 2014; attributing his departure to the overwhelming influence of big business in the legalization movement and how it shapes policy in terms of how cannabis is accessed.
Upon leaving MPP, Riffle told Vox in an interview: ”We used to talk three or four years ago about how we’re creating this industry, yet nobody in the industry gives to MPP. But now that they do give at least a little, it’s like, ‘Be careful what you asked for.’ Because we owe them now, and they get to drive the agenda.”
At the time, Riffle identified some key reasons why this may be the case, including the trend of low-level cannabis advocates swapping time between activism and positions within the commercial industry. Riffle also pinpointed issues around funding experienced by marijuana advocates should their connections end with big weed businesses.
“Who’s going to pay for a nonprofit, collective cooperative model?” Riffle asked. “It’s hard to find somebody who is willing to do that, so it’s left to the industry to fund legalization measures, and of course the industry is going to fund industry-centered policies.”
“The industry’s goal is to make money,” Riffle told International Business Times in 2015. “But from a public health perspective, we might have other goals that are at odds with the industry’s goal of making money.”
It’s clear Cortez-Ocasio — the youngest woman ever elected to US Congress who’s currently dominating media narrative with her socialist viewpoints — tends to see cannabis legalization as a civil rights issue before a matter of consumers and suppliers. It will be interesting to see how her new senior counsel is able to influence her views on the rapidly-evolving marijuana industry, which currently operates in 33 US states on a medicinal or recreational level.
Support of federal cannabis legalization has recently become a given for any 2020 Democratic White House candidate. The prioritization of voices concerned with marijuana issues beyond commercial availability and profit margin could add some newfound complexities to the march towards country-wide pot access.